Chelsea’s Under-21s kept up their hopes of retaining the Barclays Under-21 Premier League trophy after they came away from a potentially tricky trip to Southampton with a richly-deserved 2-0 victory.
The young Blues controlled the contest throughout and were rarely threatened by their highly-rated hosts, and after Kasey Palmer had given them the lead with his latest highlight-reel strike, they looked good value for a victory eventually secured by Dominic Solanke’s 36th goal of the season deep into time added on.
Coach Adi Viveash made six changes from the team he fielded last Thursday at home to Everton and was able to include several FA Youth Cup winners following Monday night’s success at home to Manchester City. Mitchell Beeney returned in goal following Jamal Blackman’s appearance last time out, whilst Ola Aina and Jake Clarke-Salter brought their winners’ medals into a back four also featuring Dion Conroy and Fankaty Dabo.
Charlie Colkett joined captain Jordan Houghton in central midfield, with Solanke playing as a number ten behind Tammy Abraham in attack; the pair flanked by the wizardry of Palmer and the pace of Alex Kiwomya.
Several of Southampton’s players had Premier League experience to their names and Martin Hunter’s side were also recently crowned Barclays Under-21 Premier League Cup winners, and they started well on home turf. Jake Sinclair’s cross caused problems for the Blues’ defence and although Bevis Mugabi connected with the delivery, he couldn’t keep his headed effort down.
Chelsea’s first notable goalmouth action came from the familiar face of Solanke, who escaped through the inside left channel and fired a low shot that was well saved by Will Britt, and his defenders were able to hack the ball clear before Palmer could pounce on the rebound. That was followed by a set piece opportunity from which Palmer picked out Houghton, but his header came back off the angle of post and crossbar.
The visitors were well on top at this stage and deserved to be ahead, but the woodwork would quickly prove to be their nemesis once again. Palmer this time struck a spectacular long-range free kick that dipped late and had Britt beaten, only for it to strike the same spot as Houghton had moments earlier. Aina then tried his luck from even further out, but his effort sailed both high and wide.
Southampton offered the occasional reminder of their capabilities throughout the first half but were unable to build a concerted spell of pressure to threaten the Chelsea goal. Sinclair had the best of their moments when presented with a clear sight of goal from the edge of the area, but rather than ensuring he got a solid effort away, he rather passed the ball to Beeney, and would be left rueing such profligacy when the Blues took a deserved lead.
Palmer collected the ball on the near touchline and took off on a run across almost the full width of the pitch before encountering Southampton resistance on the edge of the box. After holding off the attentions of three red and white shirts, he settled himself and whipped an unstoppable strike beyond Britt and into the top corner.
Sinclair, again, had a chance to help his team out following good work by Mugabi down the right, but this time his footing let him down as he slipped just before the intended shot. Saints would have no further chances before the break whilst Solanke had two – one dragged wide and one deflected away to safety – and Palmer tried to better his latest goal of the season contender with a volley from even further out, but Britt saved comfortably.
Clarke-Salter and Abraham each went close with headed opportunities early in the second half before Sinclair continued to frustrate by sending another shot off target from Gape’s deep, hanging corner kick.
Jeremie Boga joined the action from the bench and added his trademark bursts of lively dribbling to proceedings, almost scoring inadvertently with a cross from the left which landed on top of the net, but Chelsea still looked comfortable as they prevented Southampton from getting anywhere near being able to ask questions of Beeney.
With eight minutes remaining, they nearly found a way through. Jake Hesketh’s quick feet set Sam Gallagher free down the right, and his cutback was met by one-time Chelsea trialist Marcus Barnes, but with Beeney beaten, Conroy was on hand to clear from inside his own six yard box. Things quickly returned to normal though when Solanke got the better of Ollie Cook and seemed destined to score the goal his performance had deserved, only for Britt to intervene once more.
Chelsea were to be denied by the crossbar for a third time as substitute Charly Musonda collected a quick corner from Palmer before curling one that came back off the underside of the goal frame, and a minute into stoppage time Josh Sims really should have stolen a share of the spoils for the hosts when he escaped in clear on goal, but when he was needed to make a big save, Beeney was there to keep him out. The points were secured in the 93rd minute when Kiwomya’s pressure on Josh Debayo forced an errant backpass latched onto by Solanke, who was able to round Britt and tuck home to make it 2-0.
The Blues have two games in hand on league leaders Manchester United and would go level on points with them were they to win them both. Both teams are in action on Bank Holiday Monday as the Blues face a local trip to West London neighbours Fulham, with kickoff at Motspur Park scheduled for 12.05pm.
Southampton: Britt, Mugabi, Debayo, Gape, McCarthy (c), Wood (Cook 45), Hesketh, Seager (Barnes 77), Gallagher, Sinclair (Sims 67), McQueen
Subs not Used: Cropper, Jones
Chelsea: Beeney, Aina, Conroy, Clarke-Salter, Dabo (Dasilva 68), Colkett (Musonda 72), Kiwomya, Houghton (c), Abraham (Boga 63), Solanke, Palmer
Subs not Used: Collins, Mitchell
Goals: Palmer, Solanke